GRIT Program Aims To Bring More Montana Women Into Trade Industries

November 21, 2017

Wearing safety goggles and a hard hat, Sylvianne Wright, a Missoula high school student, is racing to pound nails into a beam in the main woodshop of Missoula College’s Department of Industrial Technology.

Wright, who goes to Willard Alternative High School, is part of a Missoula YWCA program called GRIT, or Girls Representing In Trades.

“It’s important for everybody to go into the trades right now just because people who work there right now are retiring and they need newer people to continue that on, but for women especially, just being able to show them that they can do whatever they want to do,” she said.

Wright and 40 other young women from Missoula area schools are at an all-female trade jobs expo through GRIT. They're getting their hands dirty, using tools and learning about career opportunities not typically targeted toward women. Things like machining, carpentry, and welding.

By 2024, U.S. employers will need to fill more than 2 million jobs in fields like advanced manufacturing, construction and transportation. So-called "middle-skill" jobs. Jobs like this account for 52 percent of Montana’s labor market, but only 47 percent of the state’s workers are trained to do them. That's according to the National Skills Coalition.

Missoula's YWCA created the GRIT program to improve women’s access to good paying middle-skill jobs and address future job shortages.

Margaret Hoyt runs the GRIT program.

“Creating a curriculum, creating a program that would engage middle and high school girls in trade fields, get them excited about things that they are not often encouraged to get excited about,” she said.

GRIT is a partnership between Missoula YWCA and the Industrial Design Department at Missoula College. It is funded through foundation grants and donations. 

Hoyt thinks GRIT, in its small way, is helping to hammer away gender stereotypes.

“I’m hopeful about the support we receive and the momentum and the enthusiasm people express toward the program, I think we’re just getting started, but I think their is a long way to go,” Hoyt said.

“Only about 4 percent of our construction and extraction workers in Montana are female, so there are very few women in the industry,” said Barbara Wagner, Chief Economist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

“You know, girls may not have as much exposure to those types of jobs that men do. They maybe don’t have a female role model within that field,” she said.

Morgan Hill is a student at Missoula College in the sustainable construction program. 

She wants to help young women see that like her, they can exist in traditionally male-dominated trades.

“After going to two years at a university, I realized that ’s not what I wanted to do, and I wanted to work with my hands and be able to see results at the end of the day. Counselors don’t really tell you about things like this and maybe they don’t know much about it because it wasn’t pushed on them when they were young, either,” she said.

The Department of Labor’s Barbara Wagner says trade jobs could help address Montana's long-standing pay gap between men and women.

“Overall, women in Montana earn about 70 percent of men’s earnings,” she said. 

Recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau say women in Montana earn about $13,000 less than men on average.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranks Montana 45th nationally in Employment and Earnings, scoring a D minus. By the Institute’s estimates, women in Montana won’t receive equal pay until 2080.

Julie Anderson is a senior research associate with the Institute.

“One of the largest contributors to the gender wage gap is that women tend to go in occupations that are heavily dominated by women and those are lower paying, and men tend to go into occupations dominated by men that are higher paying,” she said.

Federal labor statistics say a machinist in Montana can expect to make around $43,000 a year. Heavy equipment operators earn an average salary of $51,000.

A welder's annual pay is around $41,000.

In the machine shop a GRIT group takes turns learning the basics of stick welding. 

Alyssa Johnsgard is from Big Sky High School.

“A lot of women want to do this kind of stuff, but they aren’t given a chance to. They just kind of blow it off because they’re like, ‘oh the men can do this and why should I put the time into it when I’m probably not going to be hired and the man is more likely to be hired … no offense to you (laughs). It’s just a way for women who want to get into the trades, they come and do this and they figure out that they can come to college and end up with a job making $30 an hour if they wanted to,” she said.

For Johnsgard and other young women in the trade expo, the GRIT program provides a first step toward prospects of better pay and jobs outside of gender norms.